#BLM: A Brief History of Rights, Riots, and Rebellion

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Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? Or scrolled through Instagram and thought, who was the first celebrity? Did old empires face climate change? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe more than you might think.

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If you’re somehow and inexplicably unaware, the USA (yes, every single state) has been in a flux of widespread race riots for over a week now. The murder of one George Floyd, an unarmed black man, has provoked mass demonstrations against police brutality in all corners of the world, but it’s not just about him. It’s about standing up to the systematic racism that is still embedded in most of the Western world, and protesting an increasingly corrupt and violent police force. But it’s not my place to explain the reasoning behind the outrage- there are plenty of online resources written by BAME protestors and leaders that you can educate yourself with in your own time. For now, I’m here to combat the myth that ‘riots don’t work’. History proves that sentiment entirely wrong. As we dive into some of the most impactful riots in the modern era, remember what all of us owe to the protests of the past.

 

I’m sure, especially recently, you’ll have heard the famous King quotation, ‘The riot is the language of the unheard’, and I couldn’t agree with his wise words more. Each one of the historical riots I’m going to cover was the result of oppression and injustice against a marginalised group. Rioting is always a last resort, when the torment a community has suffered leaves them with no other option, when their voices are silenced, when peaceful protest doesn’t work. Nobody wants to turn to violence. 

 

We’ll begin with a UK-based riot, which, apart from a successful film of the same title, has very little media recognition- the Suffragette Movement. Like most riots or movements that were unpopular or divisive at the time, the fight for women’s rights has been (purposefully) swept under the rug of history. Sure, some schools teach it to their students at a basic level, but for the most part it seems to be an issue that film boards and media outlets are happy to forget. Why, you ask? Because, as you’ll soon discover is a recurring theme, people don’t want to remember being on the wrong side of history. Most Britons didn’t support women’s rights at the time; there’s a certain level of collective guilt that comes with knowing you were, or would have been, one of the oppressors. 

 

So, what did these brave protest-pioneers do? Well, infamously, they were known for their letterbox bombs and chaining themselves to railings. The patriarchy wasn’t the only thing they wanted to smash- shop windows were often casualties in their fight for equality, as well as then-Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George’s house. There’s no doubt that the Suffragettes had a violent streak, but they sought to damage property, not endanger lives. And these extreme methods of protest weren’t born out of nothing- before the movement split into Suffragettes, (those who were not opposed to violence and force) and Suffragists (a strictly-pacifist group) the protests were entirely peaceful. But peace isn’t always an option when you want to get your voice heard. Sometimes you’ve got to start a couple fires to get people to listen.

Suffragette Procession June 1911

In today’s society, we take a woman’s right to vote as something for granted. But back in the early 1900s? The idea seemed nonsensical and unobtainable for most. Eventually, after proving themselves by sustaining the country’s homefront during WWI, certain women got the right to vote in 1918. But this was pretty limited, as you had to be over 30 years old and be a property owner, or your husband had to be. Women only got the same voting rights as men ten years later, in 1928. The participation of women in the war effort was certainly a large factor in them finally achieving at least some form of equality as their male counterparts, but Suffragette action brought the issue to light. The press and media were against them the whole time, and one doesn’t have to look far to see how despicably feminists were portrayed by newspapers and propaganda at the time, but they still achieved what they set out to do. Rioting let them be heard for the first time. Their vision of equality and feminism wasn’t perfect, but we can still thank them for their noble efforts. 

 

It’s important to note that they, too, were met with police (and public) brutality. During one of their significant protests in 1910, known today as Black Friday, women marched to the Houses of Parliament to demonstrate peacefully, having felt betrayed by Asquith for sidelining what could have been their chance to be heard. But the 300 or so women that turned up were met with violence, turning it into a bloody riot, incited by police, both in uniform and undercover. The hostile crowd were actively encouraged to hit and beat the protestors, and reports of sexual assault were rampant, with skirts being lifted up, breasts being groped, and worse. Of course, no reports of this were taken seriously, and nobody was charged for these crimes. The previous year, the horrific use of force-feeding detained protestors on hunger strike was approved so that the movement wouldn’t be able to claim martyrs. Police brutality has always been deployed during civil protests. It’s not just limited to the USA, which is the hot topic right now. The UK is guilty of it too, as the history of the Suffragettes proves.

 

Next, let’s leap right to the Sixties. When people think of the Sixties, they tend to think hippies, ‘flower power’, and the Beatles, but really that’s just a gentle façade for the rebellious decade. The Sixties were a time of undeniable and consequential revolt. The peak of it all had to be 1968. Not only did the year start off with the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovakian uprising against political and social oppression under the USSR, but also saw riots across Europe against Capitalism, American Imperialism, and student welfare, starting in the ever-political Paris. They were vital in their own right, but today I’m going to focus on the American events of 1968, because they have a particular relevance to events happening today, and they involve a man whose importance to civil rights has been unmatched since.

 

That’s right, I’m talking about Martin Luther King Jr. His assassination by a white man on April 4th, 1968, sparked nationwide riots- the biggest the USA had seen since their Civil War (which, unsurprisingly, was also deeply rooted in racism). Over 100 cities were involved in an outcry against racial inequality, most notably Chicago, Baltimore and NYC. MLK was a peaceful man, and yet, he got assassinated, proving once again that not everything can change through peace. And much like the scenes occurring today, National Guard troops and police were called in by the thousands to suppress the rioting. Even in the country’s capital, over one thousand buildings were burned to the ground. Rioters expressed their grief with arson and violence. But after more than a week of nationwide destruction, something monumental was achieved. These riots directly provoked Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act, which meant that, for the first time in US history, landlords could no longer (legally) discriminate against potential renters or buyers based on the colour of their skin. This was a huge step forward in terms of legal racial equality in the USA, because it meant that POC were no longer limited and confined to live in certain areas just because they wouldn’t be given the opportunity elsewhere. It wasn’t an emancipation, but the riots certainly brought to light the black struggle, and reflected a peak in the Civil Rights Movement that had resurfaced in the 1950’s. Evidently, a lot of the events of the Holy Week Riots seem eerily similar to recent unfoldings all across the world with BLM. They say history repeats itself, and that certainly rings true when it comes to protests and demonstrations. On the surface level, you would think we’ve progressed past the 1960’s in terms of rights and race relations, but in reality nothing has changed. Racism is still alive and kicking, and that’s something we collectively can no longer ignore.

King Assassination Riots, Washington D.C., 1968

 

Flash forward to the following year, and you’ll find that the USA was host to another set of unforgettable riots. As you’ll have noticed, June is Pride Month, and that stems directly from a celebration of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969. The Sixties saw a crackdown on gay bars in major cities all over the USA, which, at the time, were one of the few safe places for LGBT people to take sanctuary in. Sure, most of these bars were run by the Mafia, but what’s a little bit of crime between friends? Either way, the Stonewall Inn became the target of a police raid in 1969. While many patrons left peacefully, it quickly erupted into violence when police began to mistreat and harass some of the lesbians in the bar, and used force to get a woman into a car. Not cool. LGBT bar patrons began to fight back with whatever they could find- be it bottles, glass, and even a parking meter- and forced the unruly cops back into the building. This was the first major time the oppressed queer folk had fought back, and many described it as ‘exhilerating’. And who was this front lead by? That’s right, a black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, someone who was always smiling, holding the soul of resistance in one hand and a megaphone in the other. The ensuing riots lasted four nights, as anger against historic mistreatment of gay people had reached a new height. Finally, there was a chance to fight back against oppression. 

Stonewall Riots, New York City, 1969

 

Equally, both the black civil rights movement and the LGBT uprising had a lot of learn and owe to each other, especially because a lot of the Stonewall protestors were black themselves. They borrowed riot techniques and tips and tricks from each other constantly. When it all boils down to it, even if some individuals from each movement didn’t support the other, they were both fighting for the same thing- an end to state-sanctioned oppression. Did you know that ‘out’ gay people at the time couldn’t become lawyers or doctors? Both groups had basic rights and career opportunities completely cut off. It’s important to remember that no riot is an isolated incident. They all cause ripples, they all borrow from each other, and that doesn’t make either lesser or unimportant. Techniques to fight against police brutality used in the USA today are being learned from demonstrators in Hong Kong, for example. One group rioting and protesting for their basic rights grants hope to another. 

 

While the situation happening in Hong Kong is also entirely relevant to modern protests, I don’t think it’s right to cover it within the context of this article solely because one of the five key demands of protest groups there is for their demonstrations not to be labeled as ‘riots’, so I’m going to respect that. I will say, though, that you should be paying close attention to the events unfolding there, because democracy and individual rights are under threat every day in the city, and their efforts to combat that are noble.

 

I know I’ve covered a lot of different riots there, but here’s the bottom line: rioting works. When peace isn’t always an option, it doesn’t hurt to find more radical ways to get your voice heard. Without the historical movements and the bravery of people involved to fight for their lives, we wouldn’t enjoy the rights we have today. Only by rioting have we begun to disrupt the oppression against marginalised individuals. But our job doesn’t stop here. As long as this long-standing inequality survives, there is a reason to riot. Just because we’ve come this far, doesn’t mean we can’t do more. To support the riots currently aflame in America, donate, sign petitions, educate yourselves and others. Support black business, know and understand your privilege if you’re white, and use your platform to speak up. Something needs to change, and only the people have the power to do that.

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CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion for forgotten and untold histories. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and the bass as well as her previous residence in five different countries.

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